Renewed defiance in Quebec

April 8, 2015

Ashley Smith reports from Montreal on the mass student strike and demonstration--and explains what the student movement faces in the battles that lie ahead.

MORE THAN 130,000 students went on strike throughout Quebec on April 2 to protest Premier Phillipe Couillard's budget cuts. Organized by the Association pour une solidarité syndical étudiante (ASSÉ), the student strike shut down whole parts of the higher education system, from post-secondary colleges (CEGEPS) to the province's main public universities.

The day of action is part of a re-emerging student movement after its high point with the 2012 "Maple Spring," when indefinite and continual mass mobilizations paralyzed Quebec higher education and led to the downfall of then-Quebec Premier Jean Charest and his Liberal Party government.

But while students are once again on the march, the movement is facing new questions, as a sharp debate over next steps at an ASSÉ conference last weekend showed.

Also on April 2, ASSÉ staged a mass demonstration under the slogan "Our Services Are Worth More than Your Profits." Over 75,000 students, unionists and political activists responded to the call. They poured into Victoria Square, in the heart of Montreal's financial district, and marched through the city, concluding at the epicenter of the student revolt, the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).

Tens of thousands took to the streets for a mass demonstration in Quebec
Tens of thousands took to the streets for a mass demonstration in Quebec (A.J. Korkidakis | Ricochet.Media)

Thousands of students came from Montreal itself, emerging in an almost endless stream from the Metro station by Victoria Square. Buses brought large contingents from the CEGEPS and universities from all over the province.

Importantly, though, students did not march alone. Unions had a significant presence of members, staffers and officials. The placards of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) and Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ) were spread far and wide through the demonstration.

Some professors and their unions joined the students in striking and protesting. The faculty union at UQAM went out on strike for the day. It organized its own contingent in the march, which was greeted with joyous applause from striking students.

The province's left-wing party, Québec Solidaire (QS), also had a large contingent of members, with their brilliant orange placards. By contrast, the Parti Québécois (PQ), which has widely discredited itself in the eyes of the students, barely managed any kind of presence. Some of its members who mustered the courage to carry a banner were greeted with jeers and chants defaming them as a bourgeois party.

The protest had the feel of a defiant carnival. Marching bands led some contingents, students blasted vuvuzelas, and there were, of course, the obligatory giant puppets. One stunning puppet was a giant howling wolf, which has become one of the symbols of this spring's actions.

Underneath the celebratory climate burned a rage against the austerity being rammed through by the provincial government. Inspired by the Red Hand Coalition, which unites 80 student, union and community groups, many marchers painted their hands and faces red to symbolize their subjection to increased tuition and consequent debt.

THIS STRIKE and protest were the largest since Quebec's Maple Spring in 2012. In that last round of struggle, students shut down higher education institutions and organized mass demonstrations that stopped Premier Charest's plans to raise tuition and eventually chased him from office, effectively ending his political career.

The PQ came to power after trouncing the Liberals in September 2012 election--only to betray expectations, demoralize their base and open the door for the Liberals to return to power only 18 months after their fall from power. Couillard's new regime promises to revive Quebec capitalism through government austerity and tax cuts for the corporations and the rich.

Since the 2008 economic crisis, the province's economy has been stagnant, with growth rates of about 1.5 percent a year. And corporate investment has dropped because of low returns. This sluggish economy has cut into the province's revenues, leading to large deficits and a provincial debt of over $200 billion.

These conditions have compelled the last several PQ and Liberal governments to try to impose neoliberal austerity. Couillard's regime has essentially declared war on workers, public services, education and the environment. In doing so, he hopes to increase labor productivity and cut services, all to restore growth and corporate profits, no matter what the social impact.

Couillard's austerity program is one of the most extreme in the world. He has proposed $729 million in cuts this year, to be followed up by another $853 million more next year. Education is one target. The Montreal Gazette reports that budget will cut $5 million from school boards, $21 million from the CEGEP system, and another $10 million from the universities. They are conducting similar cuts to the health care system.

Couillard is also taking aim at public-sector workers and their unions. He is demanding wage freezes for the next two years, followed by three years of a 1 percent raise. Given inflation, this amounts to cuts in wages for the next five years. By contrast, Couillard plans to reduce corporate tax rates from 11.9 to 11.5 percent in the hopes of stimulating business investment.

COUILLARD'S ASSAULT has stirred workers, environmentalists and students into struggle.

Unions have built several anti-austerity protests to stop the attacks on their members. For example, on November 29, unions joined students and community organizations in demonstrations of hundreds of thousands in Montreal and tens of thousands in Quebec City to oppose the budget cuts and defend their right to collectively bargain pensions. While they lost that right, their march could be a sign of union struggle to come.

Environmentalists have also activated in opposition to Canada's plan to run tar sands pipelines through Quebec. They have organized the Act on Climate March in Quebec City on April 11 to protest the summit of Canada's premiers. They declare:

Canada must leave 85 percent of the tar sands in the soil in order to help the human race avoid catastrophic climate change. That means no new tar sands pipelines. No Keystone, no Energy East, no Kinder Morgan, No Northern Gateway. Build even one, and we torpedo our chances of stopping global warming. We stand on the edge of a precipice, and a lack of political will threatens to send us over it.

The students hope to galvanize the unions and environmental activists in a united fight. Some organized outside ASSÉ in an informal grouping called Printemps 2015 agitated for students to strike this spring against Couillard's austerity measures as well as the oil economy.

They timed the strikes to coincide with the expiration of union contracts in the hopes that unions would join them in a social strike against the government. Over 60,000 students went out on an unlimited strike at the end of March. As part of the struggle, activists organized marches in Montreal and Quebec City.

Couillard's government has responded to the renewed struggle with unprecedented brutality. The authorities have ordered police to attack smaller protests with tear gas, batons and, for the first time, attack dogs.

In one incident, police fired a tear gas canister at point-blank range into the face of Noémie Tremblay-Trudeau at a protest in Quebec City. Far from intimidating her and the movement, she emerged from the hospital to lead another march of thousands of her fellow students.

But the cops struck again on April 2. They did not have the forces to attack the main demonstration, but after that ended, they sought out and attacked smaller contingents that continued marching through the city. In one case, after students chanted "No justice, no peace, fuck the police," police assaulted them with clubs, tear gas and pepper spray.

The Liberal Party's minister of education, François Blais, has called for university administrators to join the government's repression of the movement. He railed, "There are disciplinary measures available, up to and including expulsion." He suggested that administrators "should use them. If you were to do so for two of the people per day, that would cool the ardor of certain people."

University administrators have followed government orders. UQAM is attempting to expel nine key student leaders. Other administrations are pursuing charges against strikers for shutting down classes through picket lines and protests.

THE MARCH on April 2 was, in many ways, an act of defiance, courage and determination in the face of such state-sanctioned repression.

But the new student strike wave faces enormous obstacles to achieve the goal of a social strike that unites them with workers and environmentalists. While ASSÉ managed to bring out large numbers for the strike and demonstration last week, only about 55,000 are currently on an unlimited strike, a little over half its membership of 80,000.

Those students on strike are concentrated at UQAM, the Université de Montréal and a couple of Montreal's CEGEPS. Beyond this militant layer, there are few CEGEPS who are willing to go on an unlimited strike against austerity and the oil economy.

On top of that, public-sector unions are unlikely to go out on strike at this point. While they supported the ASSÉ's march on April 2, union officials are not legally allowed to call a strike in the immediate aftermath of their contracts expiring. They first have to go through mediation, and only after that fails can they go out on strike, a possibility for some this fall. The rank and file is not yet organized and prepared to disobey their leadership and strike illegally.

This situation led to a strategic debate between Printemps 2015 and ASSÉ's Executive Committee. Printemps 2015 hoped despite the obstacles to push for an unlimited social strike this spring. By contrast, ASSÉ's Executive issued an internal document arguing for student unions to orient the struggle on the fall, when unions would be in a position to strike. Unfortunately, that document was leaked to the press, provoking some to criticize the Executive for undermining the student strike.

This strategic debate exploded at ASSÉ's Congress over this last weekend. Recognizing that they had made a mistake, the Executive resigned at the start as a gesture of good will and in the hopes that this would enable the Congress to have a debate focused on the strategic plan for the student movement, not on themselves.

The delegates at the Congress nevertheless chose by a slim majority to vote out the Executive, despite their already having resigned. The conflict has thrown ASSÉ into some organizational confusion as it now has a transitional committee to lead an ongoing strike. It will elect a new Executive at its upcoming annual Congress.

Nevertheless, last weekend's Congress issued a plan of action for the spring. It called for support of those already on strike and a series of actions running up to the April 11 climate demonstration and, most importantly, a strike on May 1. May Day promises to be an enormous outpouring of union protests and student strikes. But it appears unlikely that it will expand to reach the scale of struggle of 2012, let alone trigger a united social strike against austerity.

The key challenge facing ASSÉ will be coming up with a strategic plan to take the struggle forward. If it can do so, it has the opportunity over this summer to build solidarity with the unions, which can legally strike this fall. So if the new struggle against austerity doesn't produce a Maple Spring, it may instead make a Maple Autumn.

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